Friday, February 23, 2018

PSIFF 2018: LOVELESS (NELYUBOV, 2017)—Q&A with Andrey Zvyagintsev

In an early scene of Loveless (2017)Andrey Zvyagintsev's Oscar®-nominated follow-up to Leviathan (which was likewise nominated when it came out)— Zhenya and Boris argue viciously over who will end up having to take care of their 12-year-old son Alyosha once they divorce, both impatiently revealing how neither want to take on the responsibility as both are anxious to embark on new lives with new partners. The camera slides to the boy listening and hiding behind a door weeping his heart out. It is one of the most devastating scenes ever committed to film. After overhearing his parents, Alyosha runs away and goes missing before his parents even notice.

Zvyagintsev's loveless realm is aligned with the harsh beauty of winter—barren trees and ice-limned rivers—as he examines a world where Eros, especially the Divine Eros, has been forsaken, and only the Earthly Eros of extramarital affairs offers relief. Loveless is as much a fairy tale for adults as “Cinderella”, which in essence is a story about lost parenting and the hazard and harm of false marriages.

As the boy goes missing, the film tracks the methodical and volunteer procedures involved in hunting for the child; necessary when law enforcement proves ineffective. This slow laborious process is made suspenseful, absorbing, even gripping through Zvyagintsev's sure grasp of the deep truths involved. Though reluctant to unpack any allegories or symbols from the film to his enquiring audience, one can't help but read into a world where women want nothing to do with the responsibilities of motherhood and men don't want children. What kind of future is to be had in such a loveless realm?

Zvyagintsev is most astute in not providing a resolution or happy ending. Instead he shows how—eschewing such cinematic conceits and leaning more into the nature of truth—nothing changes, no one changes, and life continues in as much lovelessness as it begins. Loveless is a haunting, harrowing examination of the failure of the family unit betrayed by the hearts involved.

Loveless screened at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) whose program note synopsized: “Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the powerful, Oscar®-nominated Leviathan (PSIFF 2015), takes another devastating look at the soul of contemporary Russia. It begins at the tail end of a failed marriage. Boris and Zhenya still share a Moscow apartment as they await their divorce, but they have both taken up with new partners: he with a young and already pregnant lover, she with a wealthy middle-aged man. They are so absorbed in their own enmity that they at first fail to notice that their unhappy 12-year-old son has gone missing. Has he run away, or been kidnapped? Loveless may take the form of a police procedural, but its scope expands to paint a lacerating portrait of a wealth- and status-obsessed society, mired in cynicism and divorced from empathy. Infused with suspense and dread, the movie, as critic Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian, ‘has a hypnotic intensity, which is maintained until the very end.’ ” Loveless won a Jury Prize in Cannes and Best International Film in Munich.

Zvyagintsev accompanied his film to PSIFF to, first, sit on a panel of the foreign language directors nominated for an Academy Award® and then, immediately after, to introduce Loveless and engage with his PSIFF audience through the apt translative assistance of Roman Skryabin.

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Zvyagintsev thanked PSIFF for inviting him and his film to beautiful Palm Springs. He first came to PSIFF three years ago with Leviathan so, for him, it was a great honor and pleasure to return with Loveless. Despite all the cultural differences between Russia and the United States, Zvyagintsev believes the themes of his film are universal and that American audiences will be able to understand the film and hold it close to their hearts.

Gauging the role of film festivals to help launch films to the public, Variety’s Peter Debruge—who moderated the foreign language panel—noted the social critique of Russia embedded in Loveless, and wondered how much that necessitated disguise? Like much of Iranian cinema, Loveless is a critique that is at the same time a veiled dance—how much can a filmmaker say? How much can he trust his audience to interpret?—and Debruge wondered how Loveless was received on its home turf and how that compared to its reception abroad?

Zvyagintsev assured Debruge that—when he was making the film—he never set out to win a Jury Prize at Cannes nor an Oscar® nomination or anything of the sort, because he was trying to remain true to himself and what he and his team were hoping to achieve. He would have defeated his own purpose if he were aiming, instead, for success and recognition. His primary task, as he saw it, was to try and put all his ideas and thoughts—“the protest, if you like”—into the movie, and not necessarily target festivals for awards or anything like that.

His previous film Leviathan backfired back home. It received negative reviews from critics and deterrents who disagreed with the political stance portrayed in the film. In that regard, people were expecting to confront Loveless based on how Leviathan had backfired. Even still, the vast majority of the Russian audiences who saw the film accepted it as something that had evolved from his previous film and so, generally, Loveless had a positive reaction from home audiences. Going back to Leviathan, there was "a well-known public figure" who during a speech on national television suggested Zvyagintsev should walk up to the Red Square, kneel, and ask for forgiveness nationwide. Of course, he didn’t; but, that was the general climate under which Loveless came out. Fortunately, the positive reviews prevailed, which Debruge interpereted as some kind of forgiveness for the film to have been selected and submitted on Russia’s behalf.

[Ed. Note: In his on-film interview for Tatiana Brandup’s Cinema: A Public Affair (2015), Zvyagintsev details how the erosion of Russian freedoms of thought and expression under Putin’s rise to power directly impacted Leviathan. The government passed a law outlawing the public exhibition of any film with cursing in it, which kept most Russians from being able to see his film.]

In the post-film discussion, PSIFF Artistic Director Michael Lerman noted that Loveless was as visually stimulating as all of Zvyagintsev’s films, yet notedly more urban than previous ventures. Lerman asked Zvyagintsev how he scouted for and found his locations, particularly the beautiful apartment shown in the film with its incredible light?  Zvyagintsev explained that he used an actual set for the film and not a functioning apartment. He had three sets built, which he used throughout the film. In the scene where the search team first enters the apartment, he had to re-create a sunset. The lighting technician had to lower the lights outside the window to give the impression that the sun was setting. So there really weren’t locations used in the film; there were sets.

Lerman commented that the scene in the morgue was incredible and asked how Zvyagintsev achieved it? Again, Zvyagintsev qualified, it was not an actual morgue but another built set. Though he ordinarily tends to shoot multiple takes, the scene of the parents’ melt-down in the morgue was an exception. That scene was shot in one take because the actors would not have been able to endure the scene’s emotional intensity take after take.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classics
Lerman asked if Zvyagintsev could talk about the organizations that help look for missing children? They are an actual search organization, Zvyagintsev responded, that have been operating in Moscow since 2010. He has known of them and their amazing work for seven years and has been working with them in close collaboration. Fortunately, they are not state-run and are staffed completely with volunteers so that the state cannot aim to turn the service into a business. They’re strictly non-profit. Since starting out in Moscow seven years ago, they have now branched off into 25 locations throughout Russia and have been nothing short of amazing because, again, they are staffed by volunteers who invest their own time and money. They do this work for free to help other people in their times of need. If broken down into figures, in 2016 alone out of 6,150 people who had gone missing, they managed to find 89% of them without any help from the state or the police. In the majority of cases where people are declared missing, if the families go to the police nothing is done. 

Lerman then opened it up for questions from the audience and I was quick to seize my opportunity. “Loveless stands alone as a gripping family tragedy,” I ventured, “but I’m intrigued by the comment Peter Debruge made during the foreign language Oscar® panel referencing the film as an allegory. Was this your intention to have this family drama be an allegory for a larger statement about Russia?”

Once my question was translated, Andrey tilted his head and grinned, saying in English, “Maybe…..” Trying to be as sincere and honest as possible, he continued in translation, he tried to reach deep down into the core of human being to reach the essence of being human; an ultimate honesty. Maybe you could extrapolate that to include something larger about humankind, he suggested, and maybe that would be in part the allegory being referenced; but, basing the film on the certain family drama reveals the questions of love and family values, if you will, on a bigger scale or for the whole of mankind. “You could consider that an allegory of sorts,” he offered.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classics.
Zvyagintsev was asked about the scene early in the film where the boy is playing in the woods with the streamer. Was that meant to be a symbol of his happiness and his hopefulness foreshadowing what he would soon witness and experience at home? Interpreting allegories and symbolism is totally up to the audience, Zvyagintsev made clear, and—not to reveal any kind of secrets—initially, the idea was that the little boy is shown playing with the streamer by himself so as to convey the idea of his loneliness and his interaction with nature, only to reveal at the end of the movie some kind of closure through this same exact inanimate element—a weathered streamer stuck in the branches of a tree—after the boy is no longer with us. But, again Zvyagintsev emphasized, it is up to the audience to interpet the symbolism.

[Ed. Note: In one of the film’s alternate theatrical posters the boy is shown in the branches of the tree, substituting for the streamer.]

Zvyagintsev was asked if there was any discussion regarding the potential of alternate endings to the film? “No,” Zvyagintsev responded without hesitation. The ending as filmed was pretty much how he started working with the ending, how he wanted the story to end, because what he wanted to show was that—after a couple of years have passed since the initial events took place and after the disappearance of the boy—everything pretty much remains the same. Without closure of ever finding the boy or his body, there was not enough fuel, so to speak, to help the main characters change. They remain the same. It’s frightening and disheartening to see the father act resentfully towards his new child. But that’s the ending he wanted to work with from the get-go. It’s also a bit of a joke: everybody’s trying to start a new life on Monday but by Thursday they find themselves at the same place they started, whether they were planning a new physical fitness regime or whatever. There is no happy ending. If he had gone the way of a happy ending and shown that the characters had miraculously changed and learned their lesson from this tragedy, that would have defeated the whole purpose and message of the movie about how we basically remain the same despite tragedy. A happy ending was not necessarily an option here.

In one of the film’s final scenes Zhenya is running on a treadmill and wearing an outfit that reads “Russia”. Zvyagintsev was asked if there was a deeper meaning to that? He conceded that, yes, there was a deeper, if allegorical, meaning intended. It bore a certain poetic connotation because it was in reference to the classic Russian author Nikolai Gogol who in his earlier work addressed Russia as a wild horse with the question, “Russia, where are you heading off to?” He showed Zhenya on this treadmill suddenly slowing down and stopping, as if she has lost a sense of where she is running to. This literary reference to Gogol is one that every Russian would know.

[Ed. Note: The specific reference is to Dead Souls written in 1842. Gogol writes: “Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!... And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? ...Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.” A troika is a Russian vehicle pulled by a team of three horses abreast.]

At the same time, it’s to be understood that this is the winter following the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and that the particular jogging outfit Zhenya is wearing was very much in fashion. You saw it everywhere; but, only the wealthy could afford it (yet another indication of the character’s social status). That year if you were flying business class, all the fine-looking ladies of the upper echelon were wearing this costume, as if they were on the Olympics team for Russia.

One audience member wanted to know Zvyagintsev’s inspiration for the film and if it was based on any personal experience? Fortunately, Zvyagintsev answered, the experience of escaping or even having a troubled childhood was not personal. He had a happy childhood. Inspiration for the film developed in later years, especially regarding the marital relationship, from observing friends and families he knew. Another source of inspiration were the ideas expressed in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, a film from the ‘70s. For four years straight Zvyagintsev had tried to acquire the rights to create a remake, which he couldn’t. However, upon finding the rescue organization profiled in Loveless, he decided to combine the two elements together. Another excellent quote comes from Leo Tolstoy who once said that—since most novels end up in marriage—it would be great to have one that described what happens afterwards.

Loveless opens in San Francisco on Friday, February 23, at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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